It was one of the most sensational killing sprees in recent history, with 10,500 people left dead in the streets of Juarez as two powerful drug mafias went to war. In 2010, the peak, there were at least 3,115 homicides, with many months posting more than 300 deaths, according to the newspaper El Diario. Mexico is still struggling to make sense of the bloodshed.
But the fever seems to have broken.
Last month, there were just 48 homicides — 33 by gun, seven by beatings, six by strangulation and two by knife. Of these, authorities consider 40 to be related to the drug trade or criminal rivalries.
Authorities attribute the decrease in killings to their own efforts: patrols by the army, arrests by police, new schools to keep young men out of gangs and in the classroom.
Yet ordinary Mexicans suspect there is another, more credible reason for the decline in extreme violence: The most-wanted drug lord in the world, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, and his Sinaloa cartel have won control of the local narcotics trade and smuggling routes north.
From the beginning, Ciudad Juarez has been a key battleground in President Felipe Calderon’s U.S.-backed drug war. It was here that Calderon poured 8,000 troops and police personnel, and millions of dollars in aid, in a surge that his security experts compared to the one in Iraq in 2007.
As part of the $1.6 billion Merida Initiative, the U.S. government paid for police academies here, which included training programs for overwhelmed officers in “street survival” skills. The United States provided microscopes to the forensic lab, sent Juarez leaders to Colombia to learn how that country bested the drug cartels, helped create an anonymous tip line and supported programs for at-risk youths.
Calderon says that homicides across Mexico are decreasing, but suspicions linger because his government refuses to release nationwide data.
Juarez itself remains vulnerable. It has not escaped attention that violence began to recede after soldiers and federal police started to leave the city. Residents pray that the relative peace is maintained, while thousands of families that fled to Texas to escape the violence wonder whether it is safe to return.
At its most ferocious, when this industrial border city on the Rio Grande seemed consumed by a homicidal mania, the murder rate averaged almost nine per day.
Last month, homicides averaged 1.3 a day, the lowest rate since the war between the Sinaloa and Juarez drug cartels exploded here in 2007.
“It is a completely different ballgame now,” said Hector Murguia, the mayor. “Our city is no longer a town of ghosts.”
Families have begun to celebrate birthdays in restaurants again. At night, a few customers wander into the downtown cantinas, once a no-go zone after dark. The recession is over, and the assembly plants, which pay about $13 a day, are humming. About 20,000 jobs have been created, according to city hall.